This month’s recommendations from Books & Books impresario Mitch Kaplan represent another eclectic globetrotting, multicultural slate of options from authors both emerging and established. They take us from Israel to Madagascar to small-town America. Now that Spring Break is, God willing, winding down, the beach beckons.
To quote William H. Macy in one of my favorite films, “Magnolia,” “we may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us.” William Faulkner put it more succinctly: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” These modern-day proverbs surfaced anew when I read about We Begin at the End, Chris Whitaker’s page-turning crime novel about long-buried transgressions informing the present and hazarding the future. It centers on Vincent King, a convicted murderer 30 years ago, who has just been released from prison and has returned to his small hometown of Cape Haven, California—and back into the life of his ex-girlfriend Star Radley, whose sister he killed. Star now has two children, whose attempts to protect the family will inadvertently put their community in grave risk. Read this already much-praised thriller before it inevitably becomes a movie.
Cosmopolitan American author Andrea Lee regularly writes about characters, not unlike herself, who find themselves living abroad, often with dramatic and sobering consequences. This is certainly the case with her latest novel, Red Island House, in which protagonist Shay, a Black American professor living in Madrid with her businessman husband Senna, moves with her spouse to a vacation villa he builds in Edenic Madagascar. The 20-year timespan of stories from this so-called “red island house” form the backbone of Lee’s stark critique, as an idyllic seasonal home yields rich commentary on issues of neocolonialism, identity and inequality. The novel is nothing if not lushly descriptive, with early reviewers invariably lauding its evocative nature.
A Los Angelino who pursued her M.A. in Tel Aviv, first-time novelist Sacks brings a personal and carefully researched sweep to this acclaimed work, a diverse tapestry of characters living, working and surviving—barely—in one of the globe’s perpetual flashpoints. Set around the multiple boundaries, walls and checkpoints separating Israel and the Palestinian territories, City of a Thousand Gates interweaves the stories of an Arabic college student working illegally in Israel; a new father traversing the area with his American wife and baby; a soldier from an Israeli settlement who mans a checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem; and a German journalist covering the harrowing story of a Palestinian boy beaten comatose by a group of vengeful Israeli teens. Empathetic to all sides, Sacks’ debut takes the collective temperature of a region that shows few signs of cooling down.
No stranger to exploring the intricacies of groundbreaking Black performers, Abdurraqib is known among hip-hop heads for his New York Times best-seller Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest. Now he is expanding his lens to a broad swath of Black performers, in a book that has been described as a hybrid of history, criticism and memoir. Taking its name from Josephine Baker’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington in which she told the crowd, “I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too,” Abdurraqib probes how Black performance has shaped a multicultural America for more than a century, exploring not just music but card games, schoolyard brawls and dance marathons, while reserving plenty of ink for his own formative experiences.